Institute of Product Leadership
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7 Habits of an Effective Product Leaders

By Raghu Ramanujam – Sr Director of Product at Flipkart

Being a product leader is a challenging yet rewarding role. It requires a mix of strategic thinking, effective communication, and hands-on management. As a product leader, you’re not just responsible for the success of your product but also for the growth and development of your team. The role demands a delicate balance between driving innovation, meeting business objectives, and fostering a collaborative and motivated work environment. Whether you’re a seasoned leader or aspiring to become one, cultivating these seven habits can help you guide your team to success and make a significant impact on your organization.

The journey to becoming an effective product leader involves continuous learning and adaptability. You must be able to anticipate market trends, understand customer needs, and align your team’s efforts with the company’s strategic goals. Moreover, leadership is about influence and inspiration – it’s about guiding your team through challenges, celebrating their successes, and helping them grow both personally and professionally. By developing these habits, you’ll not only enhance your leadership capabilities but also contribute to building a resilient, innovative, and high-performing team.

Now, let’s dive into these seven essential habits that can transform your approach to product leadership and drive your team toward excellence.

Key Takeaways:

  • Focus on aligning team efforts with company objectives to drive overall success.
  • Invest in developing your team’s skills and potential for long-term growth and success.
  • Create a culture of openness and teamwork to solve problems collectively and achieve shared goals.
  • Regularly reflect on your strengths and weaknesses to adapt and improve as a leader.
  • Foster an environment where calculated risks are embraced, failures are seen as learning opportunities, and innovation thrives.
In this article
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    1. Putting the Organization First

    A defining trait of a strong product leader is the ability to always prioritize the organization’s needs. While this might sound obvious, it’s a nuanced skill that can be particularly challenging in large companies.

    Prioritization Beyond Teams

    In large organizations, prioritization often involves complex exercises and navigating intra-team and cross-functional dynamics. For instance, if you manage the payments team at a company like Flipkart, you might face situations where a cross-team initiative requires your team’s resources. The challenge is to determine whether your efforts should support this initiative or focus solely on your team’s objectives. The key question is: are you making decisions that best serve the interests of Flipkart and its customers?

    Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Leader

    As an individual contributor, your focus is typically on driving your specific charter, meeting your targets, and hitting your OKRs and metrics. However, stepping into a leadership role requires a broader perspective. A product leader must understand and align with the overall synergy and priorities of the company, which can frequently change. The ability to adapt and put the organization’s needs first, even when faced with competing priorities, is crucial.

    Balancing Team and Organizational Goals

    We’ve all witnessed scenarios where teams prioritize what’s best for them, sometimes at the expense of the broader organizational goals. As a product leader, it’s essential to step back and assess the bigger picture. Recognize the importance of individual team goals but also have the awareness to prioritize what’s best for the organization. This might mean making tough calls that favor company-wide initiatives over team-specific projects.

    Aligning with Organizational Objectives

    Effective prioritization is a cornerstone of product management. But what should guide these priorities? You could prioritize based on your team’s OKRs and successes, your group or pod’s goals, or the broader business unit’s objectives. However, the most effective product leaders prioritize based on the company’s overarching goals. This alignment ensures that your efforts contribute to the company’s strategic objectives.

    Listening to Leadership

    One practical way to align your priorities with the organization’s goals is to listen to the company’s leadership. Pay attention to the priorities set by your CEO in all-hands meetings. Understand how your team’s work fits into these broader objectives and align your efforts accordingly. This approach ensures that you’re not only meeting your team’s goals but also contributing to the company’s success.

    2. Serious Mentoring

    A vital trait of a strong product leader is the dedication to mentoring. Building and nurturing a team is key, as a leader’s success is largely measured by the team’s performance.

    Prioritizing Team Success

    Using a cricket team analogy, if a star player like Virat Kohli struggles but the team wins, the focus remains on team success. Similarly, product leaders should ensure their team excels, even if their individual performance fluctuates. Strong teams make challenges easier to manage.

    Mentoring for Independence

    Effective leaders mentor team members to become self-sufficient. By doing so, they free themselves from strategic work and enable the organization to reassign them to high-impact projects.

    Facilitating Career Growth

    In large, dynamic organizations, a strong team helps seize opportunities. Leaders should ensure team members take on responsibilities that ease their boss’s workload, fostering a culture of shared growth.

    Creating an Autopilot Team

    Leaders should aim for a team that operates with minimal intervention. While initial guidance is necessary, over time, the team should run smoothly on its own, allowing the leader to focus on strategic initiatives rather than constant management.

    Holistic Mentoring

    Mentoring should extend beyond direct reports. Product leaders interact with engineering, business, and marketing teams and should provide guidance, recognition, and constructive feedback across these functions.

    Building Trust and Influence

    Effective mentors earn trust and respect, becoming the go-to person for advice across the organization. This influence is built by understanding various roles and proactively helping others.

    Practical Tips for Effective Mentoring

      • Proactive Guidance: Offer constructive feedback and suggestions.
      • Recognition: Acknowledge and applaud achievements.
      • Constructive Criticism: Address issues diplomatically.
      • Encouragement: Motivate team members to take on new challenges.

    3. Build Trust and Collaboration

    An important characteristic of a strong product leader is fostering inclusive collaboration. This involves balancing support for your team while prioritizing the overall goals of the organization.

    Prioritization Beyond Team Loyalties

    In cross-team prioritization exercises involving business, product, and engineering teams, weaker product managers often prioritize their team’s interests. While supporting your team is important, it’s crucial to avoid being seen as solely loyal to your group. Strong product leaders demonstrate a commitment to the broader organizational goals.

    Building a Collaborative Environment

    To foster collaboration and trust, be willing to address issues within your own team as well as across other teams. If a project is slipping due to a blocker in your team, don’t hesitate to call it out. This transparency builds trust and shows that you’re focused on the bigger picture, not just your team’s success.

    Personal Rapport and Approachability

    Develop personal rapport with colleagues across different groups. Being approachable and open to discussions fosters a collaborative atmosphere. People should see you as someone who takes everyone along and is committed to the overall success of the organization.

    4. Self Awareness

    Another crucial characteristic of a strong product leader is self-awareness. As leaders advance in their careers, they often develop a fixed mindset regarding their work style, which can be detrimental.

    Recognizing and Addressing Perceptions

    It’s essential to realize that how you perceive yourself might differ from how others see you. You might think you’re approachable and empathetic, but your team may find you unapproachable or lacking empathy. Self-awareness involves regularly reflecting on your actions and their impact on others. This includes asking yourself if you’re doing the right thing, if you’re approachable if you’re guiding your team well, and being open to feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.

    Embracing Feedback for Growth

    Regardless of your seniority, there is always room for improvement. Even if you’re a Chief Product Officer at a major company like Microsoft, you should continually seek feedback and be willing to act on it. Accepting and working on constructive criticism, especially when it comes from a reliable source, is vital for personal and professional growth. It’s crucial to avoid living in a bubble and to remain curious and open to learning.

    Avoiding the Comfort Zone

    Long tenure at the same company can lead to complacency, where you stop learning and become resistant to change. This comfort zone can be detrimental, particularly in competitive environments. To avoid this, always strive to improve, ask basic questions, and stay curious. Senior leaders who aren’t afraid to ask fundamental questions demonstrate a commitment to understanding issues deeply before making decisions.

    Understanding the Core Issues

    Effective leaders take the time to understand the core issues before jumping to solutions. Instead of feeling pressured to provide immediate answers, they should ask clarifying questions to grasp the problem fully. This approach ensures more informed and effective decision-making. Engaging in a philosophical discussion about lifelong learning also illustrates the value of self-awareness. For instance, people who pursue new degrees or skills later in life show a commitment to continual improvement.

    Balancing Targets and Growth

    An interesting aspect of self-awareness is balancing team targets. While it’s important for teams to meet their goals, it can be beneficial to have occasional misses. This can foster resilience and encourage continuous improvement.

    5. Setting Balanced Goals

    A key trait of an effective leader is the ability to set balanced goals that are both inspirational and achievable. Striking this balance is crucial for maintaining team motivation and performance.

    Inspirational Yet Achievable Goals

    Effective leaders set audacious goals that inspire and challenge their teams. These goals should stretch the team’s capabilities and encourage growth. However, it’s equally important that these goals are realistically achievable. Setting overly ambitious targets that are consistently out of reach can lead to demotivation and frustration.

    The Impact of Unrealistic Goals

    Consider a team consistently achieving only 40% of its targets month after month. This scenario results in low morale, as the team members are aware they are falling short and feel the associated pressure. This often stems from leaders not setting the right goals, failing to balance ambition with realism.

    Motivating Through Balanced Goals

    Leaders need to ensure their teams are challenged but not overwhelmed. Goals should be set in a way that they push the team to perform at their best, yet are within reach with effort and dedication. This balance helps maintain high motivation levels, as teams feel a sense of accomplishment and progress.

    Practical Tips for Setting Balanced Goals

      • Assess Capabilities: Understand your team’s current capabilities and potential for growth.
      • Set Incremental Targets: Break down large goals into smaller, achievable milestones.
      • Encourage Stretch Goals: Inspire the team to aim high but ensure the targets are not out of reach.
      • Monitor and Adjust: Regularly review progress and be flexible to adjust goals as needed.
      • Celebrate Achievements: Recognize and celebrate milestones to keep morale high.

    6. Encourage Calculated Risk-Taking

    A key trait of an effective product leader is the ability to encourage calculated risk-taking within their team. This involves striking a balance between being bold and making sensible decisions.

    Understanding Risk vs. Recklessness

    Risk-taking should not be confused with recklessness. For instance, jumping off a cliff without a parachute is reckless, not bold. Effective leaders support calculated risks, where the potential benefits justify the uncertainties involved.

    Creating a Supportive Environment

    One exemplary approach comes from an unnamed organization that adopted the philosophy, “I have your back.” This means leaders support their team members when they take calculated risks, even if those risks don’t always pan out. This support encourages innovation and bold thinking, essential for growth and success.

    Learning from Cricket

    Drawing an analogy from cricket, consider Virender Sehwag, a player known for his aggressive batting. He was encouraged to play freely with the assurance that the team had his back. This kind of support fosters a positive risk-taking environment where team members feel confident to push boundaries.

    Balancing Goals and Risks

    This philosophy also ties back to goal setting. Teams should be encouraged to set ambitious, yet realistic goals. Google’s approach to OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) illustrates this well. Employees set both regular and stretch goals, aiming higher while understanding that falling short is part of the process. For instance, setting a goal to increase user engagement by 28%, with a stretch goal of 32%, encourages pushing beyond the comfort zone.

    Embracing Failure as a Learning Opportunity

    Failure should not be seen as a measure of poor effort or execution. Would you rather fail attempting to climb Mount Everest, or succeed in climbing a much smaller hill like Nandi Hills? The effort and ambition in striving for Everest, even if you fall short, often bring more valuable lessons and growth. Leaders should ensure their team knows that failing after putting in a genuine effort is acceptable and that they will be supported.

    Practical Tips for Encouraging Calculated Risk-Taking

      • Set Ambitious but Realistic Goals: Encourage setting both achievable and stretch goals.
      • Supportive Leadership: Ensure your team knows you have their back, regardless of the outcome.
      • Encourage Innovation: Foster a culture where taking risks is seen as a path to growth.
      • Learn from Failures: View failures as opportunities to learn and improve.
      • Reward Effort: Recognize and reward the effort, even if the final goal isn’t met.

    7. Balancing Delegation and Hands-On Involvement

    One of the final traits to highlight for a strong product leader is the ability to balance delegation with hands-on involvement. While delegation is crucial for effective leadership, knowing when to dive in and get directly involved is equally important.

    The Importance of Delegation

    Delegation is vital for empowering your team and ensuring that tasks are distributed according to each member’s strengths. A well-delegated team should be capable of functioning smoothly even in the leader’s absence. This level of independence fosters growth and innovation within the team.

    Knowing When to Get Hands-On

    However, there are times when a leader must step in and get their hands dirty. This doesn’t mean micromanaging but rather stepping up in critical situations. For example, during team transitions when key members have left, or when projects hit significant roadblocks, a leader’s direct involvement can be crucial.

    Practical Involvement

    Being hands-on can involve joint working sessions, collaborating on specific target settings, or directly intervening during challenging phases. It’s about finding the right moments to step in, whether it’s writing a PRD (Product Requirements Document) alongside a junior team member or leading a critical problem-solving session.

    Staying Connected to Reality

    Hands-on involvement keeps leaders grounded and connected to the realities of execution. It prevents a disconnect that can occur when leaders only manage by delegation. By staying involved, leaders maintain a realistic understanding of the challenges their team faces and the nuances of their projects.

    Balancing Act

    The key is balance. Leaders must delegate to empower their teams but also be ready to roll up their sleeves when the situation demands it. This balance builds respect and trust within the team, showcasing the leader’s commitment and capability.

    Practical Tips for Balancing Delegation and Hands-On Involvement

      • Empower Your Team: Delegate tasks based on team members’ strengths to encourage growth and autonomy.
      • Identify Critical Moments: Recognize when your direct involvement is necessary to overcome challenges.
      • Stay Connected: Regularly engage with your team to stay in tune with project realities.
      • Lead by Example: Show willingness to work alongside your team during tough times.
      • Balance Management Styles: Avoid micromanagement but step in when essential for project success.

    Effective product leadership is about balancing vision with execution, empowering teams while staying connected to the details, and fostering a culture of calculated risk-taking and continuous improvement. By prioritizing organizational goals, taking mentoring seriously, fostering collaboration, cultivating self-awareness, encouraging calculated risks, setting balanced goals, and balancing delegation with hands-on involvement, you can lead your team to achieve exceptional results.

    About the Author:

    Raghu Ramanujam – Sr Director of Product at Flipkart

    Frequently Asked Questions

    To become an effective product manager, prioritize organizational goals over team objectives, invest in mentoring your team for growth, foster collaboration across departments, cultivate self-awareness through regular reflection, and encourage calculated risk-taking to drive innovation and success. By embodying these key habits, you can lead your team toward excellence and make a significant impact on your organization’s product strategy and outcomes.

    The role of a product leader is multifaceted, involving strategic thinking, effective communication, and hands-on management. They prioritize organizational goals, mentor their team for growth, foster collaboration across departments, cultivate self-awareness, and encourage calculated risk-taking to drive innovation and success in product development. Ultimately, they guide their team to achieve exceptional results and make a significant impact on the organization’s product strategy and outcomes.

    While both product managers and product leaders are responsible for driving product development, there are key distinctions. Product managers focus on day-to-day tasks such as product roadmap execution, while product leaders take a more strategic approach, aligning team efforts with organizational goals, mentoring team members, fostering collaboration, and encouraging innovation. Product leaders also have a broader scope, overseeing multiple product managers and guiding the overall direction of product strategy within the organization.

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